100 years of female Fellows: Mary Johnston

2019 marks 100 years since women were able to be elected as Fellows of the Geological Society, with the first eight elected in May 1919. They came from a diverse range of specialisms, backgrounds and experience – as part of our activities to mark the anniversary, we’re profiling each of them.

We know more about some than others – if you have any information you’d like to share with us about our early female Fellows, please get in touch! 

Mary Sophia Johnston (1875-1955)


MSJ Timeline

112 years after the Geological Society was founded, Mary Johnston became one of the first 13 female fellows elected to the Geological Society on 21 May 1919. She was a passionate field geologist, collector, keen amateur photographer, illustrator, and dedicated archivist. Although not professionally trained, her scientific illustrations rivalled the quality of professional drawings, which at the time were a huge expense for any academic journal to produce, and she became the voluntary Illustrations Secretary of the Geologists’ Association (GA) in 1910.

Mary Johnston was originally born and raised in rural Kent, only moving to London when her father died in 1888, age 13. She was fortunate enough to travel extensively and was known to attend geological meetings around the world in Spain, France, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand, Egypt and Canada, collecting fossil and rock specimens everywhere she went. Eventually, she donated most of her specimen collection to the British Museum of Natural History. She was often contacted by other geologists who knew of her collection and would borrow her photographs, maps, illustrations and samples for their presentations.

She first joined the GA in 1898 when she became a geology student at University College London (age 23). She was an enthusiastic member and supporter of the GA’s activities, not only serving as their Illustrations Secretary from 1910 – 1925, but also their librarian (1932 – 1936), a council member (1918 – 1924) and was the Association’s de-facto official photographer. Johnston was the second ever archivist for the Geologists’ Association and kept a photographic record of fieldwork undertaken by members of the GA which she brought to every annual meeting to share with other members. On her death (1955) she donated £1000 to the Association, along with her collection of the GA’s Proceedings to aid her successor. During her time as Illustrations Secretary she established guidelines and best practices for the journal that remained unaltered until at least forty years after she first drafted them.

When Johnston became a fellow of the Geological Society in 1919, she was not listed as having a degree, although she published a number of academic papers throughout her life, in 1901, 1927, and most notably in 1914, with her friend and colleague Margaret Crosfield (also elected Fellow of the Geological Society in 1919). In their paper “A study of Ballstone and the Associated Bed in the Wenlock Limestone of Shropshire” published in the Proceedings of the Geological Association, a number of Johnston’s own photographs of their fieldwork were included (see images below). Johnston met Crosfield at Newnam College Cambridge where they both studied Earth sciences.

Johnston was also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Palaeontographical Society and the Zoological Society. She was active all her life in the natural science community, and her careful curation of the photographic fieldwork records held by the GA are an incredibly valuable legacy of her commitment to recording the activity of geologists for future generations. She became a Fellow of the Geological Society “to better understand the natural world and associate with like-minded people”.

A selection of Mary Johnston’s photographs from fieldwork in Shropshire with Margaret Crosfield –

Read more about our first eight female Fellows:

Further reading, and the sources for this blog, can be found within the following publications:

  • The quiet workforce: the various roles of women in geological and natural history museums during the early to mid-1900s. Patrick N. Wyse Jackson and Mary E. Spencer Jones. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 97-113, 1 January 2007, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP281.6
  • Geotourism: an early photographic insight through the lens of the Geologists’ Association. Jonathan G. Larwood. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 417, 117-129, 18 December 2014, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP417.7
  • The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London. Cynthia V. Burek. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317, 373-407, 21 August 2009, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP317.21
  • Cynthia V. Burek, The contribution of women to Welsh geological research and education up to 1920, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, Volume 125, Issue 4, 2014, Pages 480-492, ISSN 0016-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pgeola.2014.07.007
  • Crosfield, M.C., Johnston, M.S. and Bather, F.A., 1914. A study of ballstone and the associated beds in the Wenlock Limestone of Shropshire. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 25(3), pp.193-215.
  • P. Green, The illustration of the Proceedings: the first one hundred volumes, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, Volume 100, Issue 1, 1989, Pages 31-54, ISSN 0016-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0016-7878(89)80064-1

4 thoughts on “100 years of female Fellows: Mary Johnston

  1. Pingback: 100 years of female Fellows: Margaret Crosfield | Geological Society of London blog

  2. Pingback: 100 years of female Fellows – Jane Donald Longstaff | Geological Society of London blog

  3. Pingback: 100 years of female Fellows: Ethel Woods (nee Skeat) | Geological Society of London blog

  4. Pingback: 100 years of female Fellows: Maria Matilda Gordon | Geological Society of London blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s